Sunday, April 29, 2012

LEFT INSIDE: Inner Sanctum Mysteries Post Card

This I just found two days ago! It was in my copy of Death in the Maiden by Patrick Quentin which had been sitting on my bookshelves for many years until I decided to read it this month. I think I bought the book from Steve Powell who used to run Dunn & Powell Books via mail and online and now sells books in a real store in Maine: The Mystery Cove Bookshop. He has great books! Check out their website.

Quite a fascinating little piece of P.R. from the old "Inner Sanctum Mystery" imprint put out by Simon & Schuster. I have never seen another one of these post cards in all my days of collecting. The jibe about Inspector Pipsqueak made me laugh. Must've been the work of some wiseacre copywriter because the editorial staff at Simon & Schuster didn't disparage the genre. Writers included in the Inner Sanctum imprint throughout its 40+ year lifespan included Craig Rice, Patrick Quentin, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Hake Talbot, Hilda Lawrence, Richard Powell, Henry Kane, and Emma Lathen.  And those are just the ones I can read from the spines on my shelves. The Simon & Schuster catalog had a lot of great mystery writers who stayed with the publisher for their entire careers. That doesn't happen any more.

(Top photo can be clicked on to enlarge.  Bottom photo is at full size.)


Publishing history trivia about Simon & Schuster found at their website:  There were the first publisher to allow stores to return unsold books for credit; they invented the paperback book with their Pocket Books; the first American mass market paperback line reprinting hardcover books that sold for only a quarter a piece; they also launched Little Golden Books, a juvenile book imprint that sold 2.7 million book in the first year alone. As for the Inner Sanctum imprint, here is the legend of how it got its name. It has nothing to do with the radio show.
The Inner Sanctum was a term first used at S&S in 1930 when a certain room at the House became a hang- out for staffers who played Ping Pong, sorted mail, hosted after hours cocktails and exchanged ideas. Soon, The Inner Sanctum became quite famous in publishing circles and the term became identified with the company. Max Schuster and Dick Simon decided to use the name Inner Sanctum in the chatty advertising columns they ran in Publishers Weekly and The New York Times.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Scarecrow Murders - Frederic Arnold Kummer

Anthony Morrison, son of businessman w/ gangster contacts, is found brutally beaten and shot in the cornfields bordering his father's estate. What makes the crime doubly strange is that Morrison's body has been prominently displayed on a scarecrow's scaffold with his arm pointing ominously at his father's home. Stuffed in the pocket of his jacket is a slip of paper with the famous biblical quotation "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Morrison's facial injuries reveal a punched in eye socket and some missing teeth. The very same day the body is discovered Dick Bowley turns up at Dr. Richardson's office with a sprained wrist and an ugly gash on his face requiring multiple stitches. Bowley was the rival in a war of affection over Mary Lee Perrin, a freelance stenographer who was often hired by Tony Morrison. Local police chief Lem Purnell lists Bowley as the prime suspect in Morrison's death. Judge Tyson thinks otherwise.

There is some good detection in The Scarecrow Murders (1938), a much later work by Kummer who began his career as a writer for the various popular fiction magazines (All-Story Weekly, Blue Book, The Cavalier, among others) where his old-fashioned, complex crime stories were originally serialized. He was a prolific writer who was one of the smart guys who learned to change with the times in order to sell his work. This novel is markedly different from something like The Ivory Snuff Box (1912), one of his earliest books published under his pseudonym Arnold Fredericks. The dainty manners, quaint dialog and relatively civilized criminal characters of the early 20th century are replaced by volatile emotions, harsh speech and vicious bloody murders that characterize the tougher crime novels that were in vogue in the late 1930s.

This is the first appearance of Judge Henry Tyson who also does detective work in a sequel, The Twisted Face (1938). Here he teams up with Dr. Richardson doing most of the real detective work while Chief Purnell stubbornly stick to his theory that Bowley is responsible for the murders. Bowley's belligerent and confrontational manner only serves to reinforce Purnell's suspicions. Tyson instead is more interested in Hart, a mysterious car salesman who visited Mary Lee Perrin's office. He and his car have vanished but he leaves a trail behind him like a smoking gun. Is he really a used car salesman or perhaps a private detective digging up dirt about Morrison's shady business practices?

The US paperback edition
The Scarecrow Murders is one of the unusual American detective novels that uses a rural setting as opposed to the frequent urban locations found in the genre. The rural setting is accompanied by rural mores, class distinctions and prejudices. The most striking part of the book is that a pair black servant characters (lamentably referred to by the usual racial slurs) are seriously considered as suspects. Rarely have I encountered this in a 1930s novel set in the rural American south. Black servants usually appear, as they did in films of the era, as stereotyped comic characters. Not so here. Mrs. Taylor (no first name!) is an attractive light skinned black woman and there is a rumor that Morrison may have been interested in her sexually thus igniting a jealous ire in her husband. When Amos is also found dead in the cornfield, his face blown off with a shotgun, the Judge and Purnell are worried that they may be a homicidal maniac on the loose.

Kummer does good work here and I'd say if you come across this odd mystery novel you'd do well to check it out as a better example of an early form of country noir. It often turns up in the paperback digest edition at a usually affordable price. There are currently a few copies for sale on the internet.

Friday, April 27, 2012

FFB: The Room Upstairs - Mildred Davis

I've written about Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's special brand of suspense and crime that features menace in the suburbs before. I've talked about how Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar built upon her legacy. Now I have discovered one more talented and unsung woman mystery writer who belongs in their company -- Mildred Davis. Davis sure knows how to put the mystery back in the mystery novel. The opening chapters of The Room Upstairs (1948) are filled with so many questions you can't help but keep turning the pages. Anthony Boucher wrote in his San Francisco Chronicle review: " If there had never been a 'novel of suspense' before, the phrase would have had to be coined to describe this story." A better capsule blurb was never truer.

Davis takes a fairly tired convention that goes all the way back to the Gothic novels of the 18th century – a room occupied by a mysterious recluse – and gives it a thorough shaking up in her modern tale of an accident victim who has her entire family under her spell. She manages to withhold the identity of the room's occupant for nearly the entire book and does so in a tantalizingly wicked way. The story is only marginally a  detective novel and while the plot does involve the investigation of a crime it is all done so subtly and underhandedly before the reader knows it the book transforms from one of mystery and crime into a deeper exploration of misplaced familial affections, sibling rivalry and the malaise of the spoiled rich.

The plotting and engineering involved in the first few chapters of the story is a marvel to behold. Davis manages to create four separate mysteries: who is Gene Swendsen, the new chauffeur? What really happened to Kitten in that auto accident? Why is Hilda, her sister, such a nervous wreck? And is the person in the room upstairs really Kitten? Mysterious phone calls to the man who delivered Swendsen to the Corwith home add to the suspense. Each chapter ends with an italicized section that give us insight into "the patient" in the room upstairs. We know the thoughts and feelings of "the patient" and watch as this person turns the pages of a diary written, of course, in the first person but with all references to Kitten in the third person. The diary starts out with glowing entries showing admiration for Kitten then reveal petty envy and finally explode into bitter hatred. But then the diary can't be Kitten's, can it? Why refer to herself in the third person? And if it isn't Kitten's diary, whose is it and how did the patient get a hold of it?

There are other sinister touches as well. A cocktail party becomes the scene for a dangerous experiment in hypnosis with the trance induced victim being guided to act out a murderous impulse. It's all done as a perverse form of entertainment among a group of college age men and women who were part of Kitten's circle of friends. Some friends! After having been told that no one under a hypnotic trance can be induced to do anything against her will the entire roomful of college age partygoers watches in amazement as Helen Lewisohn, the hypnotized subject, attacks a guest. Swendsen interrupts the "game" just in time to prevent serious injury.

The majority of the novel deals with chauffeur Gene Swendsen's covert investigation of the family and the events leading up to the accident. He sneaks around the house, examines the car, and subtly gets several fellow servants and Corwith family members to confess to him all their hidden feelings about Kitten. Hilda, however, is onto him. She confronts him repeatedly accusing him of being an impostor. "You just don't seem like a real chauffeur," she tells him. "Then who am I?" counters Swendsen.  The most fascinating parts of the story are these scenes between Hilda and Gene as they engage in a dance of seduction, a trading of confidences, a duel of wits to see who will drop their guard first and who will give in to the other. As the story progresses we begin to see that not only does Gene want the truth he wants Hilda.

This is a masterful work of suspense and mind games, a little bit of a detective story and a whole lot of baffling mystery. If the melodrama gets piled on a bit too heavy in the last sequence and Davis allows the usually laconic Swendsen to become long-winded with psychological explanations in the wrap-up this is no real mark against the book as a whole. I thought overall it was a dazzling display well worth the Edgar Award she won for Best First Mystery of 1948. The Room Upstairs impressed me enough to go out and find three more of her books.

For more about Mildred Davis see this tribute website put together by an ardent fan with input from the writer herself and her daughter.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Bornless Keeper - P. B. Yuill


1st UK edition, artwork by Chris Yates
This was one of those books I came across because of a comment on one of the many blogs I read. I noted the title, went looking for a copy and when they all proved to be in horrid condition set aside my search. Then a very cheap 1st UK edition came up for sale on eBay so I bought it and eagerly read the book hoping that it would prove to be as advertised by the commenter who called it the best by author P.B. Yuill, "a horror/whodunit on the lines of [T]he Wicker Man." The paperback edition plastered on its cover a blurb from a review that appeared in The Observer: "The most haunting novel of terror since The Hound of the Baskervilles." Typical P.R. hyperbole as far as I'm concerned.

Peacock Island is home to the eccentric recluse Lady Bennett. She allows no one to set foot on her land. The only boat allowed to dock brings her monthly groceries that are left beneath a bench. One day a crew member on the delivery boat notices that the bag usually left empty in full view on top of the bench has not been touched. He suspects something is wrong and daringly sets out to the Lady Bennett's home, an old country house with a Gothic facade and other tasteless Victorian crenelations that make it appear to be a castle. When he doesn't return his brother goes in search of him and finds some gruesome surprises inside the castle. The police are called and a murder investigation begins. There is a parallel story of a TV documentary crew who get word of the murder and set off to illegally make a movie about the crimes. Any reader can guess that these characters exist as only the characters in a slasher movie exist - as future victims.

While the book does a good job of creating an atmosphere of creepy Gothic chills with a killer dressed in a weird outfit of feathers and man-made claws who roams the island in search of victims I found the book overall to be extremely familiar. Granted it was published in 1974 prior to the onslaught of slasher movies and similar "they're all doomed" thrillers about people trapped on an island at the mercy of a mad killer, but it just didn't do it for me. From the very start I got too many echoes of August Derleth's love of Gothic family secrets, Hammer Horror films, and the entire 1980s slasher movie craze that have used plot ideas and situations found in The Bornless Keeper. I'm usually quick to place books like this in the evolution of crime and modern horror fiction, and I ought to give the writer some credit for perhaps being something of a groundbreaker. This novel could easily be seen as a forerunner to much more terrifying and suspenseful books in the same vein as The Silence of the Lambs and The Running of Beasts, but because it does it less skillfully I am reluctant to give it that place of honor.

UK paperback edition
Prior to the halfway mark when the entire book devolves into something akin to a sequel in the Friday the 13th franchise there were some interesting allusions to the ecological decay of the island, commentary of industrial pollution, and jabs at the thoughtlessness of tourists who use lakes and rivers as their dumping ground. I was hoping that the writer would expand upon this and that the mad killer would turn out to be some kind of monstrous thing along the lines of the creature in the very weird, unintentionally campy, 1979 horror movie Prophecy. No such luck. All of the eerie, supernatural qualities quickly dissipate along with the sideline ecological commentary and we are left with nothing more than another psycho killer tale. We get ersatz Gothic secrets, a dash of Blochian necrophilia, hidden tombs, and a very disturbing rape scene.

The strength of the book is really not in the very familiar horror elements but rather in the depiction of the policeman characters. Inspector Victor Daniels is at war with his superior Supt. Groves. What keeps the book alive is the caustic relationship between these two very different policemen. Groves is an insulting boss with little tolerance for creativity in crime solving and Daniels endures his bullying with restrained anger. While Daniels takes phone calls from the local historian who links a local legend with past crimes and does research on Lady Bennett's family tree, Groves scoffs at him and does yeoman police work delegating his men to look for stolen boats and local thugs who might have been interrupted on a trespassing adventure. I liked the police business here and thought the contrast between the ex-city dwelling Daniels and the gruff, bullheaded Groves was handled well. Daniels is a sympathetic character and you root for him to show up his narrow-minded boss. He does some decent detective work even if most of it happens through telephone calls.

The characters making up the TV crew on the other hand are the stuff of B movies. Tiresome, flat portrayals of a driven bitchy woman producer, her handsome Lothario assistant producer, the sad sack married cameraman who desires her, and a cipher character who you know will be the killer's first victim. None of the drivelly soap opera subplots between this quartet was interesting. I skimmed over these pages just waiting for someone to get knocked off or "disappear" only to "reappear" in the violent finale that is telegraphed amateurishly in previous chapters.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Morgue for Venus - Jonathan Craig

Had I read Morgue for Venus (1956) first in this excellent series of police procedurals I may not have continued onwards. It doesn't have the usual spark of originality or exceeding quirkiness to be found in the later books. But having read four others prior to this sophomore novel of Jonathan Craig I can see how he is beginning to develop his own original formula for a subgenre that has grown into at least two new subgenres – the forensic pathology thriller and the forensic anthropology thriller. Interestingly, as in the case of the variety of forensic thrillers where the identity and the slow reveal of the life of the victim takes over the story Craig in Morgue for Venus is most interested in Lucille Taylor, the hapless victim of the piece.

Already I am coming up with a list of typical Craig characters that will appear in his series. We have the middle-aged couple in which the husband is a weak-willed Milquetoast under the control of a mean-spirited harridan (in one book the wife is also a husband beater!); the adulterous work relationship; the jealous lovers; a cadre of police informers; and at least one male character with a bizarre sexual fetish. No lesbians or gays in this debut, but they crop up often in later books. After all, the books take place in the environs of Greenwich Village.

Lucille Taylor, strikingly beautiful in life, is found dead in the Hudson River. After matching her identity to that of a young woman who appeared in the missing persons file Pete Selby and Stan Rayder, the police detective duo, are faced with a few odd details. What happened to her expensive engagement ring? Why was she not wearing any underwear? Did she drown or was she killed by some other method and then dumped in the river? Most importantly who exactly was Lucille Taylor? Each interview with relatives, co-workers and friends adds another layer to a complex portrait ultimately revealing a young woman who was not as innocent as she presented herself. A sexual tease starved for attention Lucille was secretary by day, sexual adventuress by night. The two cops trace her after hours life to a posh apartment that serves as a shooting gallery where drugs, sex and porn provided entertainment for a hedonistic crowd.

The mystery plot was not as puzzling as some of the other books I've read and is fairly routine if you can call drugs, porn and prostitution routine in any crime book. Lucille's death proves to be linked to a burglary gone wrong in which Jess Callan, the primary thief, was killed by police. When it is learned that Jess was involved sexually with Lucille and Jess had a temperamental and jealous wife the police think they have a solution to the murder. But there will be other lovers in Lucille's dual life to complicate the case even further.

And what would a review of a Jonathan Craig book be without the FREAK OF THE WEEK? In Morgue for Venus that role goes to Johnny Noland, a creep with a bridal fixation. He is the mail room guy at the photo studio where Lucille worked and had all the dirt on an adulterous affair she was having with her boss. When the two cops from the 6th precinct visit Noland in his fetid cramped one room apartment they are first struck by one wall of the apartment that is covered floor to ceiling in a collage of photographs composed solely of models dressed in wedding gowns and bridesmaid's outfits. During the interview he confesses that he has fallen in love with Lucile, describes how he was planning their first date together, and then dishes the dirt on Lucille and their mutual boss. Hell hath no fury like a bridal fixated creep scorned. But to be fair he's only trying to bring about justice for the object of his failed desires.

For those who have missed my other reviews of this worthwhile series of police procedurals – books that predate Ed McBain's books about the 87th Precinct – I offer the list below for your perusal.

The Dead Darling (1955)
The Case of the Cold Coquette (1957)
The Case of the Beautiful Body (1957)

Next month we look at book number five in the series: The Case of the Petticoat Murder.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

LEFT INSIDE: Cryptic Notes on a Slip of Paper

When I found this inside a book last year I couldn't help but hear strains of The Twilight Zone theme.  I know my last name is hardly an uncommon one - especially in this part of Illinois where a wealthy family named Norris once lived who gave a  lot of money to have their name put on some buildings on the campus of Northwestern University and elsewhere.


Regardless, it was still a tad eerie to find it.  There is no one named Norris living at 255 S Marion anymore. It happens to be the address for a YMCA in Oak Park, IL.  The other address in England., but just who KW might be is unknown.  The list of strange numbers and the probable left and right references for the Ls and Rs is an utter mystery to me.  An exercise regimen perhaps?

Friday, April 20, 2012

FFB: Murder in the Moor - Thomas Kindon

The policeman on holiday has been done to death in the detective fiction genre, but Thomas Kindon's engaging and lively Murder in the Moor (1929) may be the quintessential example. You probably know the drill here – a policeman goes on vacation intending to be as far away from crime as he can manage yet invariably stumbles upon a corpse that is almost always a puzzling murder and he cannot resist uncovering the who, why, and how of the crime. What Kindon does with this well worn territory is very different and highly original on all levels. Best of all the book is wittily told and often hilarious when Kindon lets loose with his obvious fondness for outrageous humor and bizarre characters. Most appealing of all is his unusual detective Peregrine Clement -- aka Pithecanthropus -- Smith.

"Pithecanthropus? You mean like the Java Man?" I hear you cry.

Yes, indeed. For Smith is described in the third paragraph of the first page as "over six feet tall, and broad in proportion – and, moreover, very ugly…, for his face was astonishingly like a chimpanzee's." The illustration of Smith on the paperback edition shown on this page provides him with a much handsomer countenance than I would imagine Kindon intended. It is his apelike features that inspired a wiseacre copper who had recently attended a lecture entitled "What Evolution Means to YOU!" to bestow upon Smith the anthropological nickname which has stuck ever since. Even the crooks have learned to call him Pithy Smithy.

The very involved plot is far too complex to reduce to a summary of a few sentences or even a few paragraphs. And it's so enjoyable I would be tempted to describe all my favorite characters and go into great detail about the funniest moments and most ingenious plot devices. I better not do that! Suffice it to say that Smith is on a walking holiday in rural English countryside that resembles Dartmoor though the area is completely renamed with fictional towns and landmarks. Over the course of the story rich in incident and adventure he encounters not only a puzzling brutal murder, but an escaped convict, industrial espionage, counterfeiting, revenge, and a crazed inventor of bizarre clockwork devices.

More beautiful map endpapers from E. P. Dutton (click to enlarge)
Map artist: Frank Adams
From the opening pages when Smith meets up with the Scottish engineer Angus MacFee, in love with his prismatic compass and fond of calculating the proper hiking routes using his ordnance survey in combination with the compass, to the final thrilling pages in which Smith saves the convict Jimmy Toggle from a fiendish deathtrap created by the mad murderer the story is gripping, engaging, literate and witty. The detection is fascinating and also adheres to the fair play rules.  We even get a bit of Oppenheimesque spy stuff and a pulp magazine bit of gruesome bizarreness in the final chapters that would be the envy of Edgar Allan Poe.

The cast of characters are far from the types of cliches you would expect from this era. Who could resist the kooky authoress, Cynthia Trebogle, who revisits the murder scene with Smith pontificating on her nutty theory that the murder was committed by "a priest of neolithic or druidical tribe" using a stone axe.  Or the irascible Joshua Hubblesby who rhapsodizes on his idea of a real holiday being nothing more than riding his favorite train lines and sleeping. Even the police provide entertainment. Captain Hector Madan, Smith's superior, is a blustery impatient straight man providing many Margaret Dumont moments to Smith's insolent Groucho style quips. The officious younger inspector put in charge of the case is shown up many a time when he doggedly sets his eyes on MacFee as suspect number one while Smith points out he couldn't possibly be the killer due to the timing involved in MacFee's alternate route he took near the murder scene and suggests the inspector do the hike himself as proof.

But now the bad news. Thomas Kindon's 1929 detective novel is yet another of those books you will be hard pressed to find. I stumbled across my copy in the Chicago Public Library then wondered if any used copies are out there. My dutiful internet search turned up exactly ten copies in various editions for sale ranging from $35 to $158, plus one dealer in Germany who wants $197 for his copy (a US edition from 1929) that is just plain greedy. The book was reissued in Jacques Barzun's "Top 50 Classics of Crime" series published by Garland that was intended solely for libraries. I suggest you check your local library first. Chances are it may be there.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

An Afternoon to Kill - Shelley Smith

There is tendency lately among actors to refer to their career as "their craft." Fiction writers, too, have been known to call writing a craft. But as far as I am concerned storytelling whether it be done through the page or on the stage should still be considered an art form. And I think Shelley Smith would agree with me. In An Afternoon to Kill (1953) she explores the talent and skill involved in storytelling and makes a sound argument for it not only being a true art but also a powerful tool.

Lancelot Jones is en route to a small town in India where he will take up a teaching post when his plane is inconveniently grounded miles from his destination. The pilot tells him there is a minor mechanical problem and repairs should take only a few hours, perhaps the entire afternoon. Lance decides to take a walk and head to the first building he can see not far off in the horizon. He rings the bell and explains his predicament to the servant who answers. The mistress of the house, Alva Hines, allows him entry and plays hostess to him for the afternoon, providing him with a meal and talking about her love of novels and stories and the power of words to hold sway over the reader. Jones dismisses it all as worthless admitting that he never reads fiction. Alva is taken aback and the subject of books is abandoned. Then Lance says he would much rather learn how Alva came to live in such a remote part of the world. Alva confesses that it is a rather long story. Would her care to hear it all? It might just take the entire afternoon. Lance has little to do but wait until his plane is repaired and he agrees.

This amazing novel is one of those skillful "tale within a tale" books. Alva tells an ever increasingly intricate story that takes us back to the turn of the 20th century. Like the sensation novels of Collins and Braddon that were popular in the late Victorian age Alva's story involves duplicity, treachery, adultery and murder. Or is the mysterious death that takes place in her story a suicide? Much to Lance's surprise he is held rapt and finds himself under Alva's hypnotic storytelling spell, frequently interrupting her with pointed questions. When she concludes her tale Lance confronts her with a startling accusation. The reader I'm sure will follow suit in succumbing to Alva's alluring story and will be as completely surprised as Lance upon reaching the final page.

I am completely under the spell of this fine writer, one of the several I have recently discovered who deserves to be much better known. More Shelley Smith book reviews coming to this blog. Stay tuned for my next foray into Smith's fascinating world when she explores the "Fatal Attraction" theme in her suspense thriller The Crooked Man.

Friday, April 13, 2012

FFB: The Drowner - John D. MacDonald

This week the gang of reviewers who make up Patti Abbot's Friday's Forgotten Books feature salute the prolific creator of Travis McGee and a pioneer in "Florida noir" – John D. MacDonald. Please be sure to check out the other reviews listed on Patti's blog here.

The Drowner (1963) is the closest to a pure detective novel among the handful of MacDonald's books I've read. True, the Travis McGee books have elements of a detective novel, but for the most part I find them to be more suspense and crime with minimal detection. The Drowner features a real private eye, a questionable death, secrets galore and plenty of suspects. And being a MacDonald novel it also has a healthy dose of sex. In fact sex and "sinning" are at the root of the intriguing plot.

Paul Stanial is a former cop grown jaded in his new career as private investigator. He is weary and disgusted with the daily routine of peeper jobs. Armed with a camera and holed in up in seedy motels snapping incriminating photos of adulterous couples in an endless parade of divorce cases has left him empty. He asks for something challenging, something that will make use of his talent and skills he acquired as a top cop so many years ago. He gets more than he wished for when his boss hands him their most recent case.

Barbara Larrimore hires Stanial to determine if someone killed her sister Lucy Hanson, an expert swimmer. That she drowned accidentally is unbelievable to Barbara. Couple this with a series of letters that hint at sketchy business deals and she can only suspect foul play even if there is no mark on body to suggest a violent death. It seems that Lucy was entrusted by her older lover, real estate mogul Sam Kimber, with a secret and large sum of money. In one of the letters she confesses to Barbara that she was tricked into revealing Sam's confidence to a mysterious unnamed third party. Barbara is sure that third person is the one who killed Lucy.

Stanial passes himself off as an insurance agent who represents a company that suspects Lucy committed suicide. A double indemnity clause in Lucy's fictional insurance policy would pay double for accidental death but if suicide was the true cause, then nothing would be paid out. Taking into consideration Lucy's expert swimming and armed with this phony scenario he hopes he will be able to get people to discuss openly the third possible cause of her death – murder.

UK 1st hardcover edition (Robert Hale, 1964)
The list of possible suspects include Kelsey Hanson, Lucy's drunken Lothario of a husband who strayed once too often; Sam Kimber, Lucy's lover and a businessman with some shady dealings; Gus Gable, Sam's accountant who wants to protect Sam from the IRS and police; Angie Powell, Sam's Amazonian secretary who plays the role of a righteous Christian girl to an uncomfortable extreme; Angie's monstrous mother Mary who puts Steven King's Margaret White to shame in her own private war against the sin of sex; and several frivolous and swinging couples who make up Kelsey's sex obsessed friends and whom Lucy collectively despised. Sex is everywhere in this story -- the characters attitudes about sex, and the casualness of sexual relations keep cropping up in the investigation. Paul and Barbara take advantage of this when they concoct a dangerous plan to trap the killer by using Barbara as a sexual decoy. Their plan goes horribly wrong in the book's thrilling climax when we discover exactly how the killer managed to murder Lucy.

MacDonald's mastery at regional dialects and excellent dialog is on good display. Also on display is his fondness for character monologue and didactic speeches. Nearly everyone in the book suffers from logorrhea. Characters talk for page long paragraphs at a time. Only occasionally, when Barbara and Paul have scene together or when Paul and the laconic Sheriff Walmo exchange ideas, do we get anything resembling real conversations. The monologues are often engaging when we get to read flavored speech from someone like Willard, a Florida hick who knew Lucy, but when an intellectual like Shirley, one of Kelsey's girlfriends, is interviewed we get a speech sprinkled with fodder of the intelligentsia.

Overall, this was a good example of what the detective novel was evolving into by the mid 1960s. There is a the examination of clues surrounding a puzzling death, ample amount of character study, all mixed with trenchant social criticism of the swinging 60s. There is even an experiment with narrative structure in that while we mostly follow Paul and Barbara in their sleuthing, at the midpoint we are treated to the revelation of the killer who makes contact with one of the suspects then dispatches that person with relish. Then MacDonald spends an entire chapter explaining the psychology and motives of the killer. At that point the book switches from a whodunit to a cat-and-mouse thriller as we watch the killer try to outwit and undo Paul and Barbara before the unmasking. The action scenes are kept at a minimum in this book but -- almost to make up for their dearth -- are piled on in a suspenseful and violent finale.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Smallbone Deceased - Michael Gilbert

Lawyers sure do have an edge when it comes to writing about crime. So many lawyers made successful crime writers. Among the earliest were Melville Davisson Post, John Buchan and Erle Stanley Gardner. A contemporary lawyer-turned-crime writer list includes Sara Woods, Sarah Caudwell, Scott Turow, John Grisham and Martin Edwards. And those are just the few I can immediately think of without resorting to an exhaustive internet search. I'm sure I could fill a three inch column with names. Add to that list Michael Gilbert who I have finally decided to read after years of thinking about it. I chose as my first book his most lauded work, Smallbone Deceased (1950).

This lawyers' office seems no different than many of the cubicle spotted, fluorescent lit, sterile environments I've endured over the past twenty or so years as an office drudge in a variety of hospitals, advertising firms and not-for-profit organizations. The backbiting, the secretarial gossip, the petty jealousies, the after hours office sex, the professional rivalry, the enforced weekend staffing to preserve good customer relations, and the utter absurdity of a bureaucratic office enslaved to indexing and filing systems that are continually improved upon to afford better efficiency - I have encountered it all. Nothing seems to have changed in the past fifty plus years. Even with the advent of computers and email and electronic necessities like fax and copying machines everything I read of in Gilbert's book still goes on. It's only natural that a dead body would turn up in such an atmosphere. That it should turn up in a life size deed box and that the dead body has been dead for several weeks should indicate to you the overall tone of the book. Gilbert's penchant for black humor is on exhibit in sharply drawn, acerbically funny scenes. And it's a welcome addition to this cleverly constructed puzzle.

Marcus Smallbone is the dead man in the deed box. He was a member of a trust – the Ichabod Stokes Trust to be specific. The box in which he was discovered should have held the documents for that trust. They've gone missing. An awful lot of paper to go missing, too. So who killed Marcus and what happened to those papers? Inspector Hazelrigg enlists the aid of Henry Bohun, a newly employed statistician, as a sort of informer/sidekick to get to the bottom of the dirty business in the firm.

Of the detective novels I've read from the vintage era I can only say that Murder Must Advertise comes closest to capturing the microcosm of business office culture so truthfully. Sayers also displayed her own brand of wit, but her book is too closely tied to the 1930s. Gilbert's book is timeless. Though the book takes place in 1950 with references to black market goods and post-WW2 life the book could have been written a few years ago.

Everything you may have read elsewhere (and it has been reviewed and discussed repeatedly all over the interweb) about this book being among Gilbert's best -- if not the best --is true. Add me to the list of readers who have dubbed it  "highly recommended." Those of you out there who have endured a dreary office job, whether in a law firm or some other business, will find plenty to appreciate in the pages of Smallbone Deceased.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Like Ice She Was - William Ard

WARNING: This review is littered with spoilers.

I will confess that I purchased this book primarily for the very cool cover art.  Then I learned that William Ard was a favorite writer of Mike Nevin's who is one of the people who turned me onto Harry Stephen Keeler and taught me how to better appreciate the work of the brilliant Cornell Woolrich.  I trusted Mike's taste in great books and neglected writers and decided to read Like Ice She Was (1960).  I think I picked the wrong one to start with.

Lou Largo is hired to find Madeleine Mann, a former prostitute from Montreal who stole a million dollars from her casino owner husband Nick Mann. Seems that money was routinely packed up in suitcases and flown from Canada to Miami where it was supposed to be stowed away in Mann's Florida home. One of these Canadian cash shipments never made it to its final destination. The pilot Fred Cooper and Madeleine helped themselves to the money, Madeleiene decided she no longer wanted Nick and took off with Cooper and the millions for California. Now Nick Mann wants Madeleine and his money. Lou heads to Saratoga, New York to find her.

Along the way he manages to pick up Joan Martin, college student in criminology, as a sidekick. She approaches Largo with an idea that she follow him along on one of his cases for a research paper she is writing on the life of a private investigator. At first Lou nixes the idea but when Joan shows up unexpectedly having successfully tailed the private eye and rescued him from some thugs who intended to beat him to death she proves herself a worthy partner. They become an interesting team in more ways than one.

Lou's idea is that they pass themselves off as a philandering couple at the motel where Madeleine, now calling herself Marion Bouchard, has holed up. He cleverly books the room immediately next door to her. Luckily for him the walls are paper thin and the bed is extra squeaky. His plan? He will create the illusion that he and Joan are sex fiends with a lot of hysterical sound effects and exaggerated sex talk. These scenes are hilarious and one of the few parts of the book I really enjoyed. All this sex is meant to arouse the attention of Marion/Madeleine who we soon learn "has the coldest skin of any dame [Lou] ever came across." (And you thought the title was a clever attempt at metaphor.) Most people would be disgusted or annoyed by loud screwing accompanied by ridiculous running commentary and ask to move to a different room. Not Marion. She is completely turned on. She's seen Lou swimming in the pool showing off his trim muscled body and now imagines him to be a Titan of a sex partner. "Quel homme! Formidable!" (She actually says that.) She desperately wants Lou which is just what he wanted to achieve.

The story is pretty thin. Like the instructions on a shampoo bottle we get a formula like this – chase, sex, beating, repeat. Lou stumbles upon everything too quickly by asking only a few questions of people who are all too willing to spill the beans - including Madeleine's own mother. The bad guys, headed by a corrupt ex-cop from Montreal, are always a few steps behind him ready to beat him to a pulp demanding to know what exactly he's up to. By the midpoint you think he ought to be hospitalized but he carries on valiantly like a cartoon superhero sustaining a large collection of bruises and cuts. Yet somehow with all his injuries he still manages to be amazing in the sack. Vive la résilience!

Interspersed with the beatings and the sex play between Marion/Madeleine and Lou we get a lot of pining and longing from Joan. She wants Lou just as much as Marion, but he keeps calling her "kid" and "sis" and she thinks she hasn't a chance. Until that is she starts dressing like a woman, putting on makeup and changing her hairstyle. Then Lou takes notice and they play out a genuine torrid sex scene complete with squeaking bed. Immediately after Lou calls her "girl" and Joan is delighted. She's graduated from kid to sis to girl. Ah, womanhood!

When Madeleine discovers that Lou has forsaken her sexy charms for those of the younger more beautiful and less trashy Joan she vows revenge. So she goes next door to her motel room where Fred Cooper has been getting drunk with every passing hour and stabs him repeatedly. Then she frames Lou for the murder and takes off. This is the level of nonsense that the book descends to. Just when you think you've hit the absolute nadir the story lathers on more cartoonish behavior. The thugs show up, kidnap both women and plan to kill them and dump the bodies in a lake. The bad guys even tie concrete blocks around their feet. But Lou is there to save the day aided by a deputy sheriff and a posse of police.

I will give Ard credit for one scene that you rarely get in these kind of books. Nick Mann keeps insulting one of his thugs and finally calls him a fairy which seals his fate: "Tony triggered the gun once, and blew the gambler's brains out with a slug between his eyes." I always wonder why the bad guys endure insult after insult from the one in charge. Tony, unlike most of these bad guys, takes no crap from anyone even his boss.

Some of my other favorite lines:

"Lou guessed that she had squeezed that forty-inch bust into a size twelve gown to maybe take your eye off the little spinning ball. Not Largo's though" (The woman works the roulette wheel in a gambling joint.)

"Quel homme!" she thought admiringly as the creaking springs went on. "C'est magnifique! What a bull she has for company!"  (Did you ever hear anyone from Quebec province talk like they were in a Cole Porter musical? Marion was also "listening raptly" in the previous paragraph.)

"He flashed her his boyish grin, looked as guileless as Li'l Abner with the Dragon Lady." (Lou is anything BUT boyish.)

After doing a little online research I stumbled across an excellent website devoted to Ard with information supplied by the writer's widow. He died in 1960 at the early age of 37 from cancer that he foolishly believed he did not have despite multiple warnings from doctors. This book was one of the last he wrote himself. Other Lou Largo books were ghosted by Lawrence Block and John Jakes. So it looks like if I want to discover more about Ard's writing I'll have to go back to his first books in the early 1950s. I ought to give him another shot. The Timothy Dane books are supposed to be completely different and much better. Stay tuned for a possible reassessment.

To educate yourself about William Ard visit his tribute website here.

Friday, April 6, 2012

FFB: Happy Are Those Who Mourn - Andrew Greeley

I bet you never knew that the Catholic Church has a little known law on its books that recognizes people who have made a "contract of love" with each other to be legitimately married in the eyes of the Church regardless of the couple never having their marriage consecrated in the rite of matrimony by a priest. Stunned? It's true and it's only one of many eyebrow raising bits of information about canonical law unknown to most Catholics (or anyone else, for that matter) that are revealed in Happy Are Those Who Mourn (1995), a fascinating mystery novel by priest, sociologist, and one time college professor Andrew Greeley.

I approached this book that deals heavily with the business -- both financial and spiritual -- of the Catholic Church, specifically the Archdiocese of Chicago, all in the context of a murder mystery with a air of smugness. Having been raised Catholic (though no longer attending mass nor participating in the rites and sacraments) I thought that I knew everything about my religion and that I would be bored with a rehash of the theological aspects that would most likely be written in simple to understand terms for a wider non-Catholic audience. I was hoping that the locked room murder plot would be enough to keep me interested. Instead I was slapped in the face by irony.

As I read I was captivated by all the discussions of canonical law and the financial obligations a U.S. parish has to the Archdiocese and to the Vatican. The plot hinges on a murder in a locked room and is mildly puzzling, but is not the real hook of the piece. The mystery is more concerned with the slow reveal of past secrets that eventually involve arcane and truly shocking laws in the Church. In particular I was astonished that there is a law dating back 1300 years that seems to condone a certain mortal sin or, rather, in extremely specific circumstances the sin in question is not a sin at all and does not need to be confessed. I was blown away by this.

"Blackie" Ryan is asked by his immediate superior Cardinal Sean Cronin to visit a suburban Chicago parish where the pastor, Monsignor Charles McInerney, recently died. It appears that the strange tower room in the rectory where the monsignor died is being haunted by the his spirit. Not only is the tower room in the rectory plagued with weird phenomena -- the TV and lights go on and off by themselves, books are thrown off of bookshelves, footsteps are heard in the outer hallway -- the church organ bursts unaccompanied into inappropriate music, and the electronic church bells chime Christmas tunes in the middle of a hot summer. Cardinal Cronin is not pleased and he will not have the weird goings on in Woodbridge become the subject of tabloids or the lead story of local TV news crews. Blackie has made a name for himself as a debunker of spook shows so he is sent to the suburb to put an end to the apparent poltergeist activity.

While in Woodbridge Blackie learns that the dead priest was intentionally murdered and that his death was covered up to appear accidental. He also uncovers some questionable financial dealings with the parish money. He and the current pastor approximate that somewhere there is a missing $10,000,000 that belongs to the Archdiocese. Where did it go? Was that the motive for the murder of the priest? And what has Lynn Reed, a local woman dubbed the town nympho by a staunch nun, have to do with the death? She is Woodbridge's most beautiful woman and is known to flirt with all the men whether married or not. She was also was seen leaving the rectory carrying out boxes of documents a few days after his death. Is there some sort of conspiracy at work in Woodbridge?

The contrast between Cardinal Cronin and Bishop Ryan makes for entertaining springboard to the book's complex web of financial chicanery, sexual dalliance, and madness in the suburbs. While Cronin is a vociferous, temperamental whiskey taking boss who likes to lecture and will hear no arguments, Blackie is laconic, calm and almost stoic. He likes to reply to questions with a variety of adverbs among which "Arguably", "Doubtful", and "Indeed" are the most common. He jokes about his "invisibility" being one of his best attributes in his detective side work. Like Father Brown he is often taken for granted or completely ignored though he is very much present and all-observing.

The most captivating part of Blackie's character is that he is a truly modern priest. He refers to God as She, he does not believe in the concept of hell, he views sexuality as an expression of human spirituality, and above all he sees God as all-loving and forgiving to the extreme. Most of the time this laid back priest is as affable as can be, but can be stern and unyielding when his patience is tested by fools and braggarts. There are quite a few of those types among the parishioners of Woodbridge. Blackie makes for a good detective, too.  He is skillful at getting people to drop their masks and show their true selves.  It's not just Q&A, however, there are a few nice touches of legitimate old-fashioned detective work and some intuitive reasoning that come into play.  Plus there is Blackie's belief in the existence of psychic phenomena, considered heretical by his Cardinal boss, but a genuine and welcome surprise to me. As Greeley slyly writes about the priest's dismissal of the poltergeist activity as "nothing but cheap tricks" I was convinced that the ghostly mischief would prove to be nothing but fakery, and yet... But that should be left for the reader to discover on his own.

Well read devotees of crime fiction may want to draw comparisons to John Dickson Carr and G.K. Chesterton in the story of a haunted tower, supernatural incidents and a locked room murder. There may be slight coincidences in those classic writers' books and stories but the true core of Greeley's story is not in the puzzle. Greeley is most interested in the secrets kept hidden in the hearts of Woodbridge's citizens. The heart of the story is quite literally found in the human heart -- in the desires and longings of the lonely, in the perverted pleasures of the corrupt, in the compassionate forgiveness of past transgressions, in the differences between a legal marriage and a marriage of the heart.

Andrew Greeley is something of a celebrity here in Chicago but I had never read anything he wrote until last week when I chose this mystery novel. He has written extensively in a variety of non-fiction (theology, psychology, self-help, sexuality) and fiction (fantasy, erotica, mystery). A best selling author throughout the 1980s, the subject of numerous TV, magazine and newspaper interviews, attention to his books and work has since dwindled. Most of his books are now out of print. There are a total of seventeen books in the Bishop Blackie Ryan series, most of them featuring plots with locked room murders, impossible crimes, and ghosts. This was a superior introduction to the series and I plan to read more. Blackie Ryan is one of the more fascinating religious sleuths out there. I never dreamed a mystery novel could enlighten me about my own religion.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sign of Fear - August Derleth

With only a few quibbles I think Sign of Fear (1935) may be the best of the Judge Peck books. Derleth's series about the Wisconsin judge seemed extremely formulaic to me with his love of Gothic households, families ruled by stern matriarchs doing their best to keep in line the back biting relatives, and closets filled with a battalion of skeletons rattling all too loudly. Murder Stalks the Wakely Family, The Man on All Fours, and The Narracong Riddle all seem to be variations on a theme so overplayed that the last book in that list is a very close rewrite of the second. I was planning on reading the entire series but quickly tired of the repetition. Then I found the Sign of Fear – one of the rarest of the Judge Peck books – in a bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi and had to buy it. As I pored over the pages it became clear that here was a book that breaks away from Derleth's comfort zone and manages to put some truly original spins on his version of the fair play detective novel.

First, the matriarch is absent from the family. Instead we have two unmarried brothers and a female cousin making up Derleth's usual haunted family. Second, there is a mysterious murder method that is not made known until the halfway mark. Third, there is the anthropology background and some fascinating lore on ancient Peruvian superstition and religious symbols in South American culture. Finally, there is a bravura courtroom performance in which Judge Peck acts as defense attorney for one of the brothers who is accused of murder. It all makes for a highly enjoyable mystery.

Incan artifact (© F. D. Rasmussen) 
Christopher Jannichon, archaeologist, has been called back from Peru to his Wisconsin home by a series of strange postcards containing weird markings and ominous warnings. When he arrives at his home he finds similar markings drawn in the snow on the grounds of the Prairie estate and learns his brother Cornelius has also received similar anonymous postcards with odd symbols. The dominate symbol is described as "a cross topped with a cedilla" (though the illustration on the DJ shows a cross topped with a circumflex), known to both brothers through their extensive reading of Incan culture as the "God-help-us!" mark. It is clear to the Jannichons that someone is threatening them and they speculate it may have to do with Christopher's research in ancient Incan life. They consult with Judge Peck who is invited to stay the weekend when several relatives and friends are planning to visit the two Jannichon brothers. That night their cousin Edna suffers a mysterious fatal attack. She is found dead on the floor of her bedroom an expression of terror on her face. Beneath her body is a slip of paper with one of the "God-help-us!" symbols drawn in red ink. The threats have come true, but was Edna the intended victim?

The detection here is well done and, for the most part, follows all the tenets of fair play. Judge Peck learns that both Edna and Cornelius used a similar face powder (Cornelius has sensitive skin and used the powder as an aftershave emollient). On the night of the death Cornelius told his housekeeper the jar of powder in his room was not his and to put it back wherever it belonged. Judge Peck is sure that the powder found in Edna's room was the means of death somehow altered though no sign of poison is found during the post mortem. He is also certain that Cornelius was the intended victim since the powder was originally in his room. Then Christopher suffers a similar attack in which he has difficulty breathing and nearly asphyxiates. He is saved just in time. There seems to be a mad murderer in the Jannichon household armed with some mysterious means of causing death. The investigation will uncover a long lost relative, a convoluted inheritance, and a family history of respiratory ailments that are crucial to the solution of Edna's murder and several murder attempts of other characters.

Judge Peck does an admirable Perry Mason
imitation in Sign of Fear
As is the case in John Rhode's best books it is the painstaking detection, collaboration between medical experts, and Judge Peck's keen intuition that lead to the discovery of a truly diabolical murder method. In the gripping courtroom sequence that might have been lifted out of a Perry Mason novel Judge Peck calls forth witness after witness slowly building his case and making a startling revelation that brings a collective gasp to the entire courtroom. Though there are a few pieces of the overall puzzle that come as last minute revelations in the testimony of two witnesses I still laughed in amazement; Peck's solution makes for a stunning surprise.

If you want to read a Judge Peck book I suggest that you make this your number one pick. Most of the Judge Peck books are extremely scarce with Sign of Fear and Three Who Died being the most uncommon of the series. This book is nearly impossible to find and I count myself among the lucky to have found a copy. There is only the US hardback edition (Loring & Mussey, 1935) and not one paperback reprint in either the U.S. or the U.K. If you're lucky a copy may turn up in a library somewhere.

Monday, April 2, 2012

FLASH FICTION: The Dream of a Golden Mantled Tamarin

Here's another Flash Fiction Challenge sponsored by Patti Abbott. Write a short story on the theme of "A Day at the Zoo." For more zoo stories covering a wide variety of moods, genres, and styles see the list posted at her blog.



The Dream of a Golden Mantled Tamarin

The polar bear was walking in circles again. The mountain lion was pacing. The South American tapir family was sleeping as usual. And the golden mantled tamarin was staring intently at the little girl. She was here again accompanied by the young woman with the strangely dyed hair making her look something like an odd species of tamarin herself. All that was missing were the bushy whiskers. The tamarin was perched quietly on an upper branch with its tail wrapped securely around the tree to keep it steady. It was still and good at listening. This is what it heard.

"Let's go look at the penguins now."

"That place stinks."

"You told me they make you laugh. I think they're funny. Come on, these primates are boring. And I don't want to accidentally see one masturbating like we did last time we were here."

"They're sad. Everything is sad here. All the people are smiling and laughing but the animals look so sad. Or they're doing crazy things like the mountain lion we passed a minute ago or the polar bear that is always walking in circles."

"It's their form of exercise."

"That's stupid. You think I'm dumb because I'm nine. I know the difference between exercise and crazy. The polar bear is like that homeless guy we passed by the 7-11 who keeps scratching his head and screaming at invisible people. They're all sad or angry or something."

"Animals don't have feelings, Sasha."

The tamarin chattered loudly at that insulting remark.

"How do you know?"

"People have feelings. Animals just... They just... live."

"Then they should be happy. Who wants to be sad just living?"

"That's not what I meant."

"What did you mean?"

The tamarin peered intently at the young woman.

"Animals just live. They eat, sleep and mate. That's it. No feelings involved."

"If they mate then they get pregnant and if that happens then they have kids -- baby animals, I mean. Cubs, fawns, fledglings, whatever. And they take care of them. That's love, right?"

"Fledglings?"

"Little birds."

"You are smart."

"You didn't say anything about love. Are you pretending you don't hear me again?"

"I always hear you."

"But sometimes you don't listen. My mom says there's a big difference."

She made a noise of irritation then lowered her voice to a dulcet tone she perfected. She learned to master this hypnotizing tone when she wanted to make her point to the child. "Animals don't have feelings, Sasha. They are much less complex than people."

Very loud chattering started coming from the glass enclosed cage in front of them.

"Damn that thing is noisy! What I'm trying to explain to you-- Everyone is always anthropomorphizing animals. I blame Walt Disney for all of this."

"Anthro-po what?"

"Making animals seem like people. Like calling paws hands or seeing smiles in their expression when they're just chewing food or panting. And the worst of it is when people say they have feelings. The bear is not sad or mad or crazy because he walks in circles. It's just... a bear trying to get himself dry after swimming."

"I bet the polar bear is mad that you're calling him all wet."

"Oh please."

"I think all the animals hate being here. They wish they could have babies in the wild and catch their own food and be away from all these people."

"See you're doing it right now. Animals can't wish! They don't have the capacity to imagine. They live in the present and only the present without any concern of the future. Only people can imagine."

By now the entire cage of tamarins had exploded into a cacophony of dissent.

"Animals imagine people in cages being fed by animal keepers. That what I think."

The little girl was a psychic, the tamarin thought. Either that or a reincarnated ancestor.

"I think we need to leave."

"Hey! What's your favorite animal?"

The noise stopped. The tamarin uncurled its tail, climbed down from its perch and placed its paws on the glass, once again peering intently at the young woman. It listened and dreamed of a response. I dare you. I dare you, it thought.

"Favorite--? Why are you--"

"Just tell me your favorite animal."

"OK. It's a...um... There! That's it right there. Looking at us now."

The girl read the sign next to the enclosure. "Golden mantled tamarin. South America: Peru, Ecuador, Colombia. Near Threatened due to habitat loss."

"Yes, the golden mantled tamarin. It's so strange. Right now it appeals to me."

"Now would you want to be like that?"

"Huh?"

"In that glass cage with that guy coming in to feed you and wash your home with that giant hose and have all these people staring at you everyday."

She laughed a high pitched titter. "It would sure beat having to watch you and deal with your parents who pay me my miserable salary as a 21st century Mary Poppins."

"You're a smart aleck. I bet that's not even your favorite animal. And you'd never last a day here."

The tamarin seemed to be grinning at them now. Oh keep going, keep going.

"I bet I would. Be a snap. No worrying about a thing. Instead of being the caretaker I'd be taken care of. What a lovely role reversal. I'd bask in it."

"Liar! I wish you were in a cage for a day. You'd hate it."

"Not nice, Sasha. Let's go. Your Mom will be home soon."

"I wish you were a tamarin for life! Then you'd see what I mean."

*  *  *
"How was the day at the zoo?"

"They have a new tamarin."

"A new what?"

"A new golden mantled tamarin. It's near threatened. That's like two steps away from endangered."

"Oh."

"This one has very funny hair. And another thing. It was the most angry animal in the zoo that day."

"Sasha. Animals don't have feelings."

"Whatever you say, Mom."


©J. F. Norris, April 2012

The Case of the Seven of Calvary - Anthony Boucher

Boucher's first mystery The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937) is a daring piece of crime fiction in this heyday of the Golden Age when everyone seemed to be breaking the rules. He joins other detective fiction iconoclasts who did things like have a first person narrator turn out to be the murderer, or have the detective turn out to be the killer, or have an ambiguously supernatural solution to a murder. What he does exactly is something I will not reveal, of course, but it seems to me to be one of the first rule breaking books of its kind for this period.

We have here yet another academic mystery in which John Ashwin, Ph.D. acts as the armchair sleuth who works out the puzzling aspects of three strange murders without ever leaving his book lined home. Ashwin is a professor of Sanskrit at a California university (modeled after Berkeley). Like another well known detective who never leaves his Manhattan apartment Ashwin has his own Goodwin-like footman in the person of Martin Lamb, a researcher in German at the university, who delivers first hand accounts of his investigations to Ashwin. Lamb says something self-deprecating of himself in relation to the murders (something I guess another person might call "un-PC" ) that I marked and have to include here:
"You may have gathered that I've been taking a lot of interest in these deaths.  Well, I am that worst abortion of nature, an amateur detective..."

Wonder what the Right to Lifers would say about that?

The book seems to be influenced by the Van Dine school both structurally with the "author" acting as narrator and in its content with an arch tone, a sophisticated and cosmopolitan cast of characters, literate and intellectual dialogue plus -- most Van Dine-ish of all -- a story overloaded with all sorts of arcane knowledge like Spanish plays in translation, Gnosticism and other Catholic heretical sects, and even Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. Ashwin also discusses Sanskrit literature tangentially in a way that reminded of Philo Vance's habit throwing around esoteric trivia that usually has nothing to do with the murders in the Van dine books. In this case most of the esoterica will be pertinent to the crimes and reading about it is much more fun that Vance's usual pedantry that tends to annoy. It does with me, at least.

A professor is found dead on the campus only a few feet from the home of a young student he apparently was visiting. He's been struck with a blunt instrument and the weapon cannot be found. By his body is found a scrap of paper with a diagram that looks like "a curious sort of italic F, mounted upon three rectangles shaped like steps." The reader should not be fooled for an instant by that description. This is, of course, the Seven of Calvary of the title (see the DJ of the 1st edition above). But just what that symbol signifies will remain a mystery until about the book's halfway mark.

And speaking of not being fooled -- this first murder had a couple of puzzles attached to it that I figured out easily and was rather disappointed. I wondered why Boucher made it all so transparent. But then that smart man Professor Ashwin reveals that the first victim was mistaken for someone else and the whole story turns upside down. By the end of the book two more deaths occur and I was completely taken in by all the later misdirection. I doubt anyone will discover the truth behind all the deaths. It's a devious piece of work that is definitely a real rule breaker for the 1930s.

For fans of devilish puzzles and intellectual academic mysteries this is a book I highly recommend checking out. Though you'll be hard pressed to find a hardcover copy of the first edition at an affordable price, there are cheap hardcover reprints in Macmillan's "Murder Revisited" series and the Collier paperback, a copy of which I managed to obtain for under $5.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

JACKET REQUIRED: A Clutch of Crime Clubs

Inspired by Darrell's slam review of The Gray Man Walks, an old Crime Club of a book I own and only read a few pages of (wisely it seems), I am posting the DJ of that book and other Crime Club books in my collection. Some seen already, some scarce. Bellaman's book may be "deserving of its obscurity," but I like the Gothic illustration featuring the title character.


Above image is at full size. The photos below you can click to enlarge.